The “festival of democracy” is being observed these days in three states in northeast India—Nagaland, Meghalaya and Tripura. Indian elections have a character that is reminiscent of a mud-wrestling tournament in a mela. It is one dangal in which all communities and sections of society participate. This was not always the case in Nagaland. Referring to the first general elections in independent India, held in 1952, the former Nagaland chief minister Hokishe Sema wrote in his book Emergence of Nagaland, “To keep the record straight it must be mentioned that not a single vote was cast.” The leading Naga separatist organisation of the time, the Naga National Council, had called for a boycott, and the impact of this call was total.
This time around, things are rather different. Not only is there a notable absence of boycott calls, which were otherwise a constant feature up to the late 1990s, there is also a rush among aspiring candidates for tickets to contest from the Bharatiya Janata Party. This is remarkable for a state where, as per the last census, almost eighty-eight percent of the population is Christian, and where a popular slogan used by many sections, including separatists, for decades was “Nagaland for Christ.”
So how has the party of the Hindu Rashtra become acceptable across the hills of Northeast India, where separatist insurgencies raged for so many decades? It may be tempting to credit prime minister Narendra Modi for this shift, but that would be an oversimplification of the region’s history since Independence.